What’s the Difference Between Emergency Contraception and Abortion Pills?


What’s the Difference Between Emergency Contraception and Abortion Pills?

Robin Watkins
January 30, 2023
A blank white bottle with small white pills spilling out on a pink background.

Are emergency contraception and the abortion pill the same thing?

No! These are totally different medications that work in different ways in the body for different purposes. EC pills are used to prevent pregnancy before it starts, and abortion pills are used to safely end a pregnancy. 

There are two types of EC, over-the-counter levonorgestrel-based EC pills (LNG-EC) and prescription-only EC pills that contain ulipristal acetate (UPA). Either can be taken up to five days after sex and both work to prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation. That means that eggs and sperm never meet, and pregnancy is prevented from starting in the first place.

Abortion pills, also called medication abortion, are safe and effective medications taken to end a pregnancy. The most effective and common type of medication abortion in the U.S. involves taking two different medications, mifepristone and misoprostol, but it’s possible to have a medication abortion with misoprostol alone. 

What happens if someone takes EC while they are pregnant?

If someone takes EC pills while they are pregnant, research shows that the pregnancy will not be affected. Emergency contraception will not cause a miscarriage or an abortion, and it doesn’t affect fetal development.

Does taking EC pills or having an abortion now affect someone’s chances of getting pregnant in the future?

Neither impact future fertility. 

Taking EC pills in the past does not change someone’s chances of getting pregnant in the future, even the next time they have sex. Since EC pills only delay ovulation (rather than preventing it altogether the way birth control pills do), it only works to prevent pregnancy from sex that someone has already had. That means if someone has sex after taking EC and doesn’t use another method of birth control, it’s possible they could get pregnant right after taking EC. So, if they don’t want to be pregnant they will need to take EC again, even before getting their next period. It’s safe for people to take EC as many times as they need it. 

Having an abortion only ends the current pregnancy, it does not affect future fertility or pregnancies. 

How does someone get EC pills?

LNG EC pills, like Plan B, Next Choice, and Take Action, are available over-the-counter without a prescription or ID check for people of all ages and genders. Folks can search Bedsider’s EC finder to learn where to get EC pills in person and online. Some college campuses even have EC vending machines installed to ensure 24/7 access at a lower cost than the drug store. A prescription from a health care provider is needed to get UPA EC pills, brand name ella, and people can get one either in person or online. Since EC pills are the most effective at preventing pregnancy the sooner they are taken, getting EC ahead of time can help people have the EC they need, when the need it.

How does someone get abortion pills?

Getting abortion pills (or having an abortion procedure) can both be arranged with a provider. Depending on where you live, abortion pills are available in person or online. For help finding an abortion provider, Abortion Finder (AbortionFinder.org) has the nation’s most up-to-date and comprehensive database of verified abortion providers and assistance resources. 

This article has been adapted from a piece originally posted on Bedsider Providers in May 2022.